President-elect Donald Trump has chosen retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to be secretary of defense, according to people familiar with the decision, selecting a former senior military officer who has said that responding to "political Islam" is the major security issue facing the United States.
Mattis, who retired as chief of U.S. Central Command in 2013, has often said that Washington lacks an overall strategy in the Middle East, opting to instead handle issues in an ineffective one-by-one manner.
"Is political Islam in the best interest of the United States?" Mattis said at the Heritage Foundation in 2015, speaking about the separate challenges of the Islamic State and Iranian-backed terrorism. "I suggest the answer is no, but we need to have the discussion. If we won’t even ask the question, how do we even recognize which is our side in a fight?"
To take the job, Mattis will need Congress to pass new legislation to bypass a federal law stating that defense secretaries must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years. Congress has granted a similar exception just once, when Gen. George Marshall was appointed to the job in 1950.
An announcement is likely by early next week, according to the people familiar with the choice. Jason Miller, a spokesman with the Trump transition team, tweeted Thursday evening that no decision had been made. Trump’s son Donald Jr., meanwhile, retweeted a report saying that Mattis got the job.
Mattis, 66, served more than four decades in the Marine Corps and is known as one of the most influential military leaders of his generation, serving as a strategic thinker while occasionally drawing rebukes for his aggressive talk. Since retiring, he has served as a consultant and as a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution, a think tank at Stanford University.
Like Trump, Mattis favors a tougher stance against U.S. adversaries abroad, especially Iran. The general, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in April, said that while security discussions often focus on terrorist groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaida, the Iranian regime is "the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East."
Mattis said the next president "is going to inherit a mess" and argued that the nuclear deal signed by President Barack Obama’s administration last year may slow Iran’s ambitions to get a nuclear weapon but will not stop them. But he added that "absent a clear and present violation," he did not see a way that Washington could go back on it, because any unilateral sanctions issued by the United States would not be as valuable if allies were not on board.
But Mattis may break with Trump’s practice of calling out allies for not doing enough to build stability. Mattis served from November 2007 to August 2010 as the supreme allied commander of transformation for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, focused on improving the military effectiveness of allies. Trump called NATO "obsolete" this year before saying later that he was "all for NATO" but wanted all members to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, a NATO goal.
"The president-elect is smart to think about putting someone as respected as Jim Mattis in this role," a former senior Pentagon official said. "... He speaks truth to everyone and would certainly speak truth to this new commander in chief."
But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Trump’s personnel choices, said: "If there’s any concern at all, it’s the principle of civilian control over the military. This role was never intended to be a kind of Joint Chiefs of Staff on steroids, and that’s the biggest single risk tied to Mattis.